Anger is “the elephant in the room in mental health” according to The Mental Health Foundation. In a survey they conducted in 2008, a third of respondents said they knew someone with an anger problem. Anger is often made worse by misguided folk wisdom that says it’s a good idea to reflect on your feelings and vent them. In fact, past research has shown that ruminating and venting anger make it worse.
A new study tests the idea that anger can be dissipated by mentally distancing oneself from the situation – as if viewing proceedings from the perspective of a fly on the wall. There’s evidence that this is beneficial, but before now this was derived from studies that merely asked people to imagine frustrating scenarios. Now Dominik Mischkowski and his colleagues have ramped up the realism levels, deliberately winding up their participants in the lab.
Ninety-four undergrads signed up for what they thought was an investigation into the effects of music on problem solving and creativity. They listened to some intense classical music and attempted to solve a series of anagrams against the clock. Part of the procedure involved them reading back the correct answer to the researchers over an intercom. This is where the wind up began – the experimenter repeatedly said that they weren’t speaking loudly enough. After the twelfth anagram he went as far as saying “Look this is the third time I have to say this! Can’t you follow directions? Speak louder!”
Immediately after the wind up, the participants were told a second experiment (on the effects of music on feelings) required that they reflect on the previous anagram task – either seeing the situation unfold again through their own eyes, or as if they were watching the situation from a distance, “as if it were happening to the distant to you all over again.” A third of the participants acted as controls and were told to reflect on the anagram task without any specific instructions. Afterwards, all the participants rated their anger levels. The key finding was that the participants in the distancing condition reported feeling less angry and having fewer aggressive thoughts compared with participants in the self-immersion and control conditions.
A second study was similar but this time a new set of participants were given the chance to actually vent their anger. After the wind up and the reflection phase (from a distance vs. immersed in their own perspective) the participants were invited to take part in a competitive anagram task with a partner located in another room. Part of this involved the chance to blast their opponent with loud noise when he/she got answers wrong – taken as a sign of aggressive behaviour. The important result here – participants who reflected on the initial, frustrating anagram task as if from the perspective of a fly on the wall showed less aggression compared with the other participants.
Mischkowski and his team said their findings showed “how people can neutralize aggression while focusing on their emotions and the situation at hand—by adopting a self-distanced perspective.” They added that this is important given that distraction is often not possible in real life situations, for example when it’s necessary to carry on interacting with the provocateur.
Dominik Mischkowskia, Ethan Kross, and Brad J. Bushmana (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behaviour. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.012